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Dignifying urban/rural lives: decentralization done right

Recently, someone brought up this logical paradox: most people who are urban are not elites. And most “urban elites” grew up in a suburb.

This proposition holds in the United States, but it’s still far from being universal. It infers that the city ends where inner suburbs do. Would this paradox hold in other moments in history? Could Aristotle have used it in his time to raise his disciples’ conscience?

Proteus, conceptual colony in space (Mars mining in 2040, a speculative project), by Architectural Review via Flickr CC

Urbanism has always been contradictory and “messy,” and this apparent tension has nourished some of the most positive trends in human progress. Industrialization, for example, created a subclass of misery at an unprecedented scale. Still, it also fostered effective universal rights that reduced abuse and increased living standards, life expectancy, and social mobility.

As prices rose in the most vibrant cities during the last decades, inequality, sprawl, or homelessness became an unavoidable part of them, while the city’s expansion into the countryside missed the opportunity to build respectful, mutually reinforcing connections between commuters and locals.

Can the city-country equilibrium be achieved, reinforcing farmlands, local producers, and periurban natural habitats?

From Jack London’s Oakland to today’s highway encampments

Life in cities has also been a dynamic process of ups and downs, evolving differently in different societies. Sometimes, “elites” helped speed needed transformations, from industrialists reporting abuse to intellectuals documenting the untenable living conditions of working-class tenements.

Industrialist Frederic Engels provided first-hand information to Karl Marx issued from his family’s textile factories in England. And Jack London fought to denounce class rigidities in the San Francisco Bay Area; meanwhile, Jacob Riis photographed ravaged tenements in New York at the turn of the Twentieth century (How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York, 1890), an initiative that his —then unexperienced— friend Teddy Roosevelt applauded, as documented by Edmund Morris (The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, 2001).

With his pioneering photojournalism in New York’s cramped tenements, Jacob Riis helped bring the case of urban reform in a very different country trying to regulate massive European immigration to its perceived interests. With its population and industrial power still concentrated around New York and the Great Lakes, its social fabric was more attuned to John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer than to the dynamic, sprawly, and car-dependent “cities” of the Southwest.

Around the downtown, the once-hollowed-out inner boroughs of American cities experimented a revival by the turn of the century, living up to the promise of affordable historical fixer-uppers and commercial space to transform into lofts, raising the debate of gentrification.

Beyond a denser urban core lies a landscape of infrastructures both the city and the suburbs fight to push away. There grew a succession of road interchanges bigger than entire Italian Renaissance cities, retail areas, warehouses, the carcass of old manufacturing companies; here and there lays some trapped, remaining countryside devoid of any meaning.

The Newark of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral

Sometimes, the scars of deindustrialization are painfully real, as if some inner cities had tried to live up to their most Dantesque stereotypes. There, the consequences of urban decay, redlining policies, and the civil unrest protests that Philip Roth described in American Pastoral, are visible, with closed stores, lack of healthy food, test scores, access to jobs, life expectancy.

Siena, Italy

Philip Roth’s Newark (so close to Montclair, with its commuter train to Manhattan, yet so far away at once) is the epitome of the unsuccessful urban experiment that emerged around urban centers after the civil rights protests, where administrative segregation gave way to a series of incentives to achieve similar outcomes.

And what incentives couldn’t accomplish became a social experiment of pockets of flourishing, diverse neighborhoods, but also examples of self-segregation and white flight. Redlining, or the incentivization of segregated neighborhoods, often gave way to urban decay, while a few successful stories emerged as outliers and social experiments of cosmopolitan life in the works.

The Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North, the Vietnam protests, or the Civil Rights Movement, are all phenomena associated with the rise of the mostly homogeneous American Suburbs post-World War Two.

The G.I. Bill provided educational and economic assistance to some veterans and their families, not to all of them. Therefore, some American cities became less diverse and successful, not more. But the hollowing of American cities is only one part of a complex, contradictory story with some bright spots.

What cities are good at

Some have drawn parallelisms between the era of anti-Vietnam and Civil Rights protests with today’s identitarian tensions and political confusion. Still, neither American society nor the country’s biggest cities have remained the same since 1968.

The phenomenon of deindustrialization and gentrification is not exclusive of North America, nor the periods of urban revival that have transformed some of the most vibrant cities in the world, the perceived success of whom has made some of them unaffordable for most workers, students, artists, and the misfit types that gave them grandeur.

Cities are a civilization’s thermometer. The effects of Covid-19 are their last disruptor, a macabre deus ex machina that seems to have come from an era of sanitary uproar that we thought history had left behind. Economic activity is coming back to pre-Covid levels faster outside cities, and urban cores still lack a big percentage of professional workers, international tourists, and the services economy around them. Some trends may have lasting effects.

Between the 1930s and 1960s, it was common to spot in Tokyo “delivery men bicycling through busy streets with massive stacks of soba noodles on their shoulders” (via historian Nick Kapur)

Yet, the most vibrant cities will show their power of attraction once more. It takes the fear of a social uprising, severe weather patterns, or fear of pandemics to revert the trends that have arisen in human civilizations ever since the rise of agriculture and stable settlements —people are drawn to vibrant cities due to their concentration of jobs, education, economic opportunities, and culture.

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson uses biology to build an analogy between vibrant ecosystems —the rainforest, coral reefs, wave-shattered atolls, river estuaries— and cities, which are, Johnson argues, hotspots for the fabric of civilization: the constant, and apparently messy, cross-pollination of ideas, goods, information. It’s Richard Florida’s “creative class.”

Such places usually play their uniqueness (human density) in their favor. Still, they are especially vulnerable to disrupting events that affect their population with the speed of ideas: extreme climate events, natural disasters, pandemics, invasions, or the endless combination of such threads in a few generations.

Dialectic of urban life

Jared Diamond settled the ground for the growing literature on resilience with his attempted genealogy of civilizations under stress and their different fates depending on their strength.

His Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005) tries to be the cautionary tale modern societies need to adapt to the already unavoidable phenomena exacerbated by our activity, but his account of the failures and success stories of the past is remote and comfortable.

Steven Johnson, Jared Diamond, or Richard Florida bring us the dangerous comfort of simplified models hoping to replace the realities they depict as if there were formulas or reproducible sets of best practices to avoid urban issues that have shaped history.

Cities have sped the advancement of civilization since they allowed the interaction of concentrated wealth and knowledge and its transmission; by accumulating and improving the communication of previous expertise, urban classes sped intellectual progress.

Paris Air Show (1909) at the Grand Palais

And, by “standing on the shoulders of giants,” new horizons became closer in a process that Steven Johnson compares with the biological concept of the “adjacent possible” (a set of conditions that make innovation unstoppable and explain why there are ideas that seem to bloom independently in different places around the same era.)

We could trace a long genealogy of urban misery plague of Athens (430 B.C.), the Antonine plague (A.D. 165-180), the barbarian invasions of a Rome already ravaged in the countryside, the cyclical European urban riots that turned into minority attacks (usually against local Jews), the so-called wars of religion, the 1755 earthquake that flattened Lisbon, or the urban riots that would shape modernity, taking place in a Paris prison and an apparent anodyne quarrel about taxation of goods in the harbor of colonial Boston.

The myth of natural intactness

The complexity of such events, rooted in a zeitgeist that cannot vanish in the name of modeling, remind us of the difficulty —and risk— of extrapolating past phenomena into current situations. What can we learn from the mentioned works or past events?

Two recent papers reshape what we know about ecological intactness, reminding us that what we perceive as “natural” is a landscape reshaped by human activity in one way or another, as the Amazonian dark earth (remnant of long-gone soil management and slash-and-char agriculture in the Amazonian basin,) reminds us.

When restoring ecosystems and bringing back species of flora and fauna, but also soil microorganisms, we face the inconvenient truth of our decisive role as custodians of landscapes since prehistory. The new studies contend the accepted presumption that most of the world’s ecosystems were primeval, almost untouched by humanity, until de expansion of Europeans from 500 years ago onwards:

“Even 12,000 years ago, nearly three-quarters of terrestrial nature was inhabited, used, and shaped by people. Areas untouched by people were almost as rare then as they are today.”

Through burning, shifting cultivation, hunting, animal domestication, and exploring, hunter-gatherers, early farmers and herders “transformed wildlands into human biomes,” state the papers.

The establishment of permanent settlements did nothing but speeding processes already happening, and with the change came a new proto-urban conscience that contrasted with that of the countryside.

Otium et negotium

Oral tales in Archaic Greece show the growing tension between the flourishing of the polis and the secondary role of the countryside around them. The first version of the tale of Town Mouse and Country Mouse, attributed to Aesop, tries to highlight the risks of density and wealth concentration. The simple, self-reliant life of the country mouse lacks the luxury and sophistication of the city mouse. Still, the latter pays a hefty toll for his riches, living in fear of attacks, sickness, and other events associated with the rise of cities.

In Rome, prominent citizens such as Cicero learned how to keep a safe haven extra muros as a place for resting, contemplating the delicacies of rustic living, and escaping from the dangerous urban intrigues. “Otium” (leisure) opposed “negotium,” but rustic “otium” didn’t mean either practicing senseless leisure, nor resting with no purpose. On the contrary, the proper way of engaging in “otium” required a predisposition to appreciating the inner workings of an agrarian estate, hence the “dignity” of it: “otium cum dignitate.” Virgil’s Georgics sing the delicacies of rustic flourishing.

With dignity or not, the modern city has broken the main links between urban and country living: urban citizens lack the knowledge of agrarian lifestyles caring for productive homesteads. And the other way around —the vestiges of a long-gone agrarian society caress a self-preservation impulse by engaging in a militant opposition against city living.

Old street in rural Japan

Hence A Pattern Language, the influential essay on architecture on urbanism, insists on the interdependence of country and city living as an alternative to the growth of impersonal suburbs devoid of any vernacular aspiration or fit into the local environment:

“The region as a social and ecological whole will not be properly maintained unless the people of the region are fairly well spread out across it, living in many different kinds of settlements —farms, villages, towns, and cities— with each settlement taking care of the land around it.”

When exurbs and farms compete for valley land

If people leave the farms and rural towns to pack into the city, the region becomes depopulated, while uprooted suburbs around the economic core experience price increases for a lifestyle that usually lacks the advantages of rustic living or those of a more accomplished urban living for that matter.

The distribution across a region, explains Christopher Alexander et al. in A Pattern Language, has to consider both statistics and local character. It’s better to have many small towns and few large ones, and the distribution of towns within the region benefits most when it’s even and not highly concentrated:

“It is only by decentralization that we can increase self-sufficiency —and self-sufficiency is vital if we are to minimize the burden of social systems on the ecosystems that support them.”

A Pattern Language proposes a region consisting of evenly distributed small towns and a few large ones, where urban life and rural life increase their interactions and permeability knowing each other thanks to “city country fingers” (patterns of urban and country land 1-mile-wide each, interlocking each other):

“Keep interlocking fingers of farmland and urban land, even at the center of the metropolis. The urban fingers should never be more than 1 mile wide, while the farmland fingers should never be less than 1 mile wide.

“Whenever the land is hilly, keep the country fingers in the valleys and the city fingers on the upper slopes of hillsides.”

The opportunity of reviving small farms

To Christopher Alexander, there must be “policies encouraging the reconstruction of small farms, farms that fit the one-mile bands of country land.”

Jacob Riis, “Bandit’s Roost” (image of New York’s alley street in 1888); Riis would publish “How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York” 2 years later

This is not what’s happening. Impersonal avenue malls expand ever further from town and city’s outskirts into suburbs and exurbs, creating interchangeable commercial strips that depend on cars and lack any vernacular ambition:

“Continuous sprawling urbanization destroys life and makes cities unbearable. But the sheer size of cities is also valuable and potent.”

Rebuilding the lost contact between city dwellers and the countryside would increase the quality of life for millions of people and would end up embellishing land fingers in between urban ones.

In the proposed design, roads cannot be too close together:

“To protect the countryside from suburban encroachment, the roads running out into the countryside must be vastly reduced in number.”

Metropolitan areas can thrive and celebrate a “mosaic of subcultures,” as opposed to the models that have spread in the last decades across the United States and beyond: the “heterogeneous city” (encourages conformity since “it tends to reduce all lifestyles to a common denominator”), and the “city of ghettos” (a hermetically secluded design that begets intolerance).

As opposed to those two models, a “mosaic of subcultures” consists of subcultures occupying small and identifiable places, each one of them with its own character and “activity nodes.” Such places can grow separated from other subcultures by nonresidential land (or natural boundaries.) Such places become the equivalent of a “country town” in the old days and not an impersonal suburb.